Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 3, Issue 17;   April 23, 2003: Critical Thinking and Midnight Pizza

Critical Thinking and Midnight Pizza

by

When we notice patterns or coincidences, we draw conclusions about things we can't or didn't directly observe. Sometimes the conclusions are right, and sometimes not. When they're not, organizations, careers, and people can suffer. To be right more often, we must master critical thinking.

The lab phone rang, and Julie picked up. It was the night guard reporting that the pizza had arrived. "Be right down," she said, and hung up. She went around the corner and found Bugs leaning back in the rolling chair, feet propped up on the system desk, watching the colored bars dancing on the screen.

"Pizza's here, your turn," she said.

Pizza"Right," he said, "Take over." He left and Julie sat down, wondering when they would finally find this bug. Whenever they ran the test with the Marigold module, the system failed immediately. When they swapped out Marigold and put the old rev in, it ran just fine.

They were stumped. After three weeks of long nights, Julie was becoming convinced that the problem could only be in the midnight pizza.

Bugs returned, and they sat down to eat. Partway through the first slice, Julie had a thought. "What if Marigold isn't the problem?" [Brenner 2006]

Chewing a mouthload, Bugs somehow managed, "What?"

When we're stressed,
critical thinking is difficult
"I mean, suppose there's a problem in the system itself, and the old rev of this module compensates somehow. The system would work with the old rev, but fail with Marigold."

Bugs stared into his paper plate, but stopped chewing. "You mean…we've wasted three weeks?"

It turned out that Julie was right. Since the system had run flawlessly for years, everyone assumed that the system itself handled the data correctly. But Marigold really did things correctly, and that made it incompatible with the rest of the system. Julie had uncovered an unrecognized assumption, which led them to incorrect conclusions.

Critical thinking is the process of drawing sound inferences based on evidence, principles, and an understanding of the world. When we're stressed, critical thinking is difficult, because so much of our energy is consumed in stress. Unrecognized assumptions are just one kind of failure of critical thinking. Here are three more examples of failures of critical thinking.

Wishing
When we want a specific outcome, and incoming information is consistent with that outcome, we tend to believe that the outcome has occurred, even if the data supports alternate explanations.
Misunderstanding statistics
When we notice a freakish coincidence, it can seem so unlikely that we feel that it can't be coincidence. We conclude incorrectly that correlation is evidence of connection.
Rushing to judgment
When we're aware that we don't have actual proof, but we're sure we're right anyway, we can believe that the proof will emerge soon enough. So we decide that our inference is the truth, and we forget that we don't have proof.

To work effectively on a complex problem, a group needs freedom from panic. When long hours and excessive stress limit our ability to think critically, the problem truly can be in the midnight pizza. Go to top Top  Next issue: A Message Is Only a Message  Next Issue

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info

Footnotes

[Brenner 2006]
Richard Brenner. "Asking Brilliant Questions," Point Lookout blog, November 22, 2006. Available here. This is an example of a "brilliant question." Back

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenZLkFdSHmlHvCaSsuner@ChacbnsTPttsdDaRAswloCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:

A MetronomeSelling Uphill: The Pitch
Whether you're a CEO or a project champion, you occasionally have to persuade decision makers who have some kind of power over you. What do they look for? What are the key elements of an effective pitch? What does it take to Persuade Power?
Jersey barriers outside the U.S. White HouseProblem Defining and Problem Solving
Sometimes problem-solving sessions are difficult because we get started solving a problem before we know what problem we're solving. Understanding the connection between stakeholders, problem solving, and problem defining can reduce conflict and produce better solutions.
Dr. Jerri Nielsen at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in 1999On Virtual Relationships
Whether or not you work as part of a virtual team, you probably work with some people you rarely meet face-to-face. And there are some people you've never met, and probably never will. What does it take to maintain good working relationships with people you rarely meet?
Bill Moyers speaking at an event in Phoenix, ArizonaAsking Clarifying Questions
In a job interview, the interviewer asks you a question. You're unsure how to answer. You can blunder ahead, or you can ask a clarifying question. What is a clarifying question, and when is it helpful to ask one?
A performance reviewPerformance Mismanagement Systems: I
Some well-intentioned performance management programs do more harm than good, possibly because of mistaken fundamental beliefs. Specifically: the fallacy of composition, the reification error, the myth of identifiable contributions, and the myth of omniscient supervision.

See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness, Problem Solving and Creativity and Critical Thinking at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A form of off road driving also known as mud boggingComing November 30: Avoiding Speed Bumps: II
Many of the difficulties we encounter when working together don't create long-term harm, but they do cause delays, confusion, and frustration. Here's Part II of a little catalog of tactics for avoiding speed bumps. Available here and by RSS on November 30.
Tuckman's stages of group developmentAnd on December 7: Reaching Agreements in Technological Contexts
Reaching consensus in technological contexts presents special challenges. Problems can arise from interactions between the technological elements of the issue at hand, and the social dynamics of the group addressing that issue. Here are three examples. Available here and by RSS on December 7.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenZLkFdSHmlHvCaSsuner@ChacbnsTPttsdDaRAswloCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around.
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.
Comprehensive collection of all e-books and e-bookletsSave a bundle and even more important save time! Order the Combo Package and download all ebooks and tips books at once.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!